The truth marries no one.-- Spanish Proverb
Michael Blahut was on trial last week for three felonies and two misdemeanors stemming from an incident at the MacDonald’s Drive–Thru in Ukiah a year and a half ago. Just as his lawyer, Anthony Adams of the Office of the Public Defender, finished his closing arguments, Mr. Blahut followed this reporter into the courthouse hallway and, with an overweening self-assurance bordering on impertinence, demanded that I retract what I had previously filed when I covered Mr. Blahut’s preliminary hearing, when the evidence against him was first brought out in open court. Blahut said the story was all lies and was hurting his reputation, and that I’d better “take it off the internet.”
Mr. Blahut’s trial was conducted in much the same way as the prelim except that more witnesses were called, and Mr. Blahut had changed lawyers. The judge at the prelim was the Honorable Ann Moorman; at trial, the Honorable Cindee Mayfield. Other than that, the evidence was much the same in both hearings. It therefore seemed to me that Mr. Blahut was jumping the gun, so convinced he seemed to be that the jury would acquit him of the charges.
The victim, Doug Shald of Fort Bragg, was called to testify and told the jury how he had been in line at the Drive-Thru with his wife and kids when the car behind him, blasting loud music, suddenly rammed into his car, revved up its engine to a roar, scraped past his vehicle, shot up over the curb and slammed into the concrete cylinder at the base of a light pole. The driver of the crashed vehicle then got out and started rummaging through things in the car, throwing out clothing, and Shald, thinking maybe he was after a weapon (probably a spray can of bear repellent) had the wife and kids get out and go inside.
The driver – the drunk driver, as it later proved — Mr. Blahut, then tried to leave the scene and Mr. Shald “took him to the ground.” Blahut got free and then, along with Mr. Habash, the manager of the MacDonald’s, Shald caught Blahut again and again took him to the ground. But Blahut was struggling desperately and got away. So, a third time, Habash and Shald took Blahut down.
At this point, Blahut took out a can of bear spray and shot the stuff into the faces and eyes of Shald and Habash, committing three felonies in one fell swoop: Two counts of assault with pepper spray and one count of battery resulting in serious injury to Mr. Shald, who got the most of the spray and was in what he described as the worst pain of his life.
Mr. Luay Habash had been watching some of what was going on in the Drive-Thru on the closed circuit tv in his office, and when he came out he helped Mr. Shald detain Mr. Blahut who was attempting to flee the scene of an accident, a misdemeanor added to the package of felonies he’d amassed.
Twice they had taken Blahut down, and twice he got away, the second time using the bear spray to such awful effect. Shortly afterwards the police arrived.
The video from Ukiah Police Officer Kevin Murray’s patrol car showed Blahut fleeing across the J.C. Penney’s parking lot when Officer Murray arrived, and another patrol car coming in from the other direction; we saw Blahut drop his jacket and go to his knee and hands, a kind of three-point position of a footballer, his hand close to the jacket. Officer Murray was shouting for him to get on his face – hence, a resisting and delaying an officer charge, another misdemeanor – when Officer Edwards came up and put Blahut “in compliance” with Murray’s order: “Get on the ground! Face down on the ground! Now!”
Defense Attorney Anthony Adams pointed this out in his closing arguments, replaying the video for the jury, and eloquently making the point that his client had never resisted. Mr. Adams also made the point that Mr. Shald, though he had been calm and polite on the witness stand, had been something altogether different when he confronted Blahut in the Drive-Thru. Adams was demonstrative and spoke forcefully, gesturing with his arms, and smacking his hands together to punctuate his statements to the jury.
“Two very unfortunate things happened here, ladies and gentlemen,” declared Adams. “One, my client, Mr. Blahut made a bad decision to drive under the influence; and, number two, Doug Shald got angry. He was upset and – let’s be candid – he was pissed-off! Yes, that’s right, he was pissed-off. This little charade of him coming in here and saying he was sitting patiently in his car and listening to my client talk gibberish is not reasonable. His car had been rammed and scraped and he was very upset over that. The idea that he sat there calmly is just ridiculous!
“Mr. Blahut had just been hit in the face when his airbag deployed, after colliding with the light pole, he was stunned and confused, and here comes Mr. Shald, who is really pissed-off, getting right in my client’s face. And of course my client tried to get away. I would have, too. Anyone would. My client was saying, ‘Please stop shoving me so I can give you my insurance information; I have money and I’m willing to pay to fix your car. Mr. Shald called it gibberish when Mr. Blahut tried to offer payment – said he was ‘ranting’ – and that he himself, Mr. Shald, was calm, which is just an asinine response, ladies and gentlemen.
“Mr. Shald said he said, ‘Hey kids, get out of the car’ – why would he do that if he really thought my client was dangerous? Why would he even roll his window down? Oh no, that’s not what happened. He got out and he went over and confronted my client who tried to get away, and when Mr. Habash came out and both Shald and Habash tackled him, my client did what he had to do to defend himself and get away from the aggressors.
“Shald said he called 911 – but why didn’t we hear it? Surely, they would have a recording of it if he did. He said he pushed my client a little. He didn’t push him a little, and you know that. Three times he was thrown to the ground -- [mockingly] ‘I may have pushed him a little…’ Ha! And [sarcastically] he was calm! Mr. Habash comes out and he has no context to put this in – he hasn’t heard what Shald has said -– he only sees Mr. Blahut walking away saying, ‘I’m outta here’—he was being treated unreasonably and harangued and assaulted by Mr. Shald; now, of course he was drunk, but from Mr. Blahut’s perspective Shald was being harmful and offensive, and for goodness sake if I was being chased by Mr. Habash and Mr. Shald, I would run too. When Law Enforcement arrived, my client was relieved that now he would get some protection from these two.”
The two were being treated for pepper spray by the time Law Enforcement arrived. But Mr. Adams had made another of his very impressive closing arguments, and when the jury came back with guilty verdicts on all the charges except the misdemeanor resisting arrest, I was somewhat surprised. Yes, I was surprised. But Mr. Blahut, who had been so sure of himself after his lawyer’s closing, was incredulous, crestfallen, devastated and several more synonyms for such a huge disappointment. This all comes of jumping to conclusions, of having too sure of a belief in your own infallibility. Nobody could have presented Mr. Blahut’s defense any better than Mr. Adams did. But not one juror was swayed from the underlying fact that the defendant was guilty of the charges, and that his actions were not taken in self-defense.
Prosecutor Luke Oakley of course deserves mention for his calm and quiet manner, his steady insistence on the facts, in contrast to Mr. Adams’ loud and vigorous defense.
But Blahut’s legal difficulties do not end here – he still has more charges to face in the coming weeks, all stemming from this incident, and I noticed he was arrested for domestic battery and vandalism just last summer as well; so his good name is likely to suffer more blemishes in the not too distant future.
Blahut blames me for “ruining his reputation” but all I did was my job, by getting down as much as I could of what transpired in open court, and drawing a few of the more obvious conclusions to make a coherent narrative of my impressions. If Mr. Blahut wants to improve his reputation, he is going to have to improve his behavior, because I refuse to be coerced by this obnoxious character (or any other) into telling his version of the Truth rather than what I see in court.
Oh, yes, and before I forget: When Anthony Adams finished his closing, a murmur of appreciation, exchanged glances of approval, went round the jury box, and if it were not so out of place in a courtroom, they might have applauded. Even Assistant DA Dale Trigg, who was sitting in the gallery with your trusty correspondent, calculating his new pay-raise, no doubt, even this senior prosecutor looked up and took note. And for the jury to come back with overwhelmingly resounding guilty verdicts in a relatively short time? I’m afraid any damage to Mr. Blahut’s reputation is entirely his own doing.